When was the last time you remember bringing your absolute "A game" to your work, decisions and relationships? It's likely that your memories are either too distant or too infrequent to feel satisfying. Given the rapidly changing environments within which we live and work, "overwhelmed" and "stretched too thin" are common sentiments. The irony is that during a time when most are desperately in pursuit of creativity, innovation and emotionally intelligent leadership there is a simultaneous pushing of ourselves and our employees to exhaustion—depletion of the very resources most needed.
There is a new way of approaching work and time that allows for more efficient allocation of resources and strategic outcomes: focus management. Focus management begins with investment in self, first, to rejuvenate the body and mind. Strategic leaders are typically more attuned to themselves holistically. They care about wellness, take longer or more regular vacations, find ways to unwind doing something that is joyful, and have diverse interests and relationships. Even though a holistic approach seems like common sense, many professionals report feeling that investing in downtime seems luxurious. On the contrary, research clearly shows that rejuvenated leaders are more attentive to the subtle cues in the environment, willing to hear divergent points of view and adept in coaching employees.
Understand the Vision
Focus management begins with a clear understanding of the vision—where are you trying to go? Where are you trying to take your team? Your organization? A vision is a vivid and compelling end state—an aspired-for destination. Vivid means that you should be able to close your eyes and see the vision in detail, including seeing yourself in it. A compelling vision is one that is so enticing that you cannot help but act in a way that brings it into being. It is powerful enough to stimulate energy that makes you literally jump out of bed in the morning, or stay up all night, or do whatever it takes to make it become reality.
In the absence of a compelling vision, people tend to focus primarily on fear—the "what if's" associated with not having a clear sense of the future. The energy used is called distress, or negative emotional stress. Stressful energy is what we use to worry; it is emotionally exhausting.
It's important to remember that humans are wired to have emotional responses. Emotions that focus on fear are able to cause distress. Emotions that focus on vision are able to stimulate eustress, a creative energy.
Establish Creative Tension
The work of leaders is to maximize the opportunity for eustress (or beneficial stress) in the workplace. This is done by keeping the vision firmly in focus and fleshing out the path to the vision through strategic planning and use of other analytical frameworks. Tapping into this creative tension enhances one's ability to broadly explore ideas from multiple perspectives and build capacity for addressing other complex issues in the future. It also allows for criteria-driven prioritization of activities that are aligned with the vision. Ultimately, people throughout your organization develop comfort and confidence identifying and choosing strategic investments over "putting out fires".
Put It Into Practice
As an example of how to begin this shift in focus, make a list of 10 things you do at work on a weekly basis that you think make the biggest contribution to: 1) the strategic goals of your organization, 2) your colleagues and 3) your clients. Next, label each item with a T for Task, M for Management or L for Leadership. Tasks are things you do in reaction mode. They are typically detail-oriented and require you to be hands-on with their completion. Management responsibilities are focused on developing stronger skills and confidence in people and efficiently allocating and leveraging resources. Management is balancing fast-paced troubleshooting with slower, more reflective attention to ensuring solid processes are in place. Leadership involves anticipating and then facilitating toward to a desired future. Leadership behaviors often involve taking risk, exerting influence, environmental scanning and positioning yourself, your team or organization to advance identified goals.
Look at your distribution of T, M and L's. Are there too many T's and not enough L's? If yes, it's likely because doing the work of leadership—learning, reflecting, analyzing, positioning—does not always appear busy enough. Strategic leaders balance T, M and L's rather than being pulled in the busy trap. Putting out fires is often emotionally draining. It solves an immediate problem but does not necessarily resolve issues to prevent them resurfacing in the future; the return on investment is minimal.
Strategic leaders create, articulate and advance a shared a vision that enables prioritization of long-term sustainable efforts, versus time- and crisis-management. Perhaps most importantly, active focus management means making a commitment to rejuvenation, a must needed practice for individuals, teams and organizations to flourish.